Death of a psychotherapist and other poems

Death of a psychotherapist and other poems :  by John Woods. Karnac Books Ltd. 47 pages.

Published at the end of 2017, this is a memoir of John Woods’ journey through life threatening illness. He had been working as a psychotherapist in the NHS for 35 years, the last 20 in the Portman, and was beginning a six month pre-retirement phase when this happened. His poems express the distancing and dreamlike experience of acute illness, the weirdness of hospital life, the fight to survive psychologically during treatment and finally the return to a new normal.

There are three sections.  The first ‘Death of a psychotherapist’ contains a delirious “collage of words and images” (pg 37) that came to him during the first days of brain tumours and strong medication “a journey into gods, ghosts and shadows” (pg 38).  The second ‘Other poems’ contains a series of short discrete poems written over several months and reflecting a mind now more able to recognise and comment on what’s going on.

His Notes, the third section, describe the full arc of his experience – how the poems came about, and his subsequent musings on what it has meant for him.  He draws attention to the emotional aspects of illness like indignation at the inconvenience and disruption of normal life “I’m a therapist! I have to get back to work” (pg 38) then the loss of agency during extended treatment that can itself be traumatic.  As he says, the patient knows intellectually he isn’t being punished “or abandoned to torture and degradation” (pg 43) but it can feel like this and the childish response to all the instructions about what to do or not do can induce resentment against the doctors and their life saving treatments and a temptation to refuse to comply.

Woods had been reading the Greek poet Cavafy when the illness started and ideas from his poems are woven into Woods’ poems.

Ithaca gave you the wondrous journey;
Without her you would never have set out.
But she has nothing to give you any more.

(pg 12)

This quotation from Cavafy’s poem Ithaca ends the first section, completing a poem where Woods asks why you would want to be a psychotherapist with the challenges and frustrations involved and the possibility of ending disillusioned. Yet his professional identity is vital to him and while his life itself is in danger he is strangely unaware of this threat and more concerned about the annihilation of himself as a therapist. Finally, Woods answers his own question with this:

Without belief in its power you would never have set out,

never had those experiences,

maybe not have survived yourself.

(pg 12)

I didn’t know Cavafy’s work, translated from Greek, and was delighted to be introduced to it. Ithaca could be about the journey through professional life, or through serious illness, or the voyage through life itself and the necessity to engage and experience it fully along the way because rewards lie in the journey not the destination which I think is Cavafy’s meaning (the complete poem is available online).

At times brave, wry and witty this is an enjoyable and affecting read. Although intensely personal Woods’ poems and reflections are also universal and I think anyone who has experienced illness, pain and hospitals will readily understand what he’s on about and smile here and there as I did.

In ‘What fresh hell’ he experiences a new pain “to be downloaded, decoded, woven into the daily routine of pain management” (pg 22) and he captures the irritation of doctors asking impossible questions like – where is it, how intense, how often, what exactly – sharp or dull?  “Dull … no sharp … stops me sleeping” (ibid).

I particularly liked this :

I see a Spider of Insomnia

Scuttling along infinite corridors;

Stopping to spread poison on the wall

Of my silent

Cold

Godless world.

(pg 22)

Then in ‘A new Kind of Good News’ the cancer is “now only in my eyes … much better than … everywhere … better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick” (pg 29).

Woods was fortunate in that he survived his illness and has returned to work. While I was waiting for his book to arrive I had been reading Helen Dunmore’s final work ‘Inside the Wave’ which tracks a similar journey except that she died, in April 2017.  The eponymous poem likens being alive to being inside the wave, always travelling until it breaks and is gone.

In ‘My life’s stem was cut’ she imagines herself as a wilting flower revived by trimming and placing in a vase of fresh water:

“I know I am dying

But why not keep flowering

As long as I can

From my cut stem?”

(Dunmore, 2017: pg 23)

Her final poem, ‘Hold out your arms’, written ten days before her death, imagines Death as a kindly mother welcoming her, a shy little girl, into her arms :

“As you push back my hair

– Which could do with a comb

But never mind –

You murmer

We’re nearly there”.

(Dunmore, 2017: pg 70)

Woods concludes his book reflecting on how the mind works to accommodate itself to death while at the same time there is a need to create “something that wards off the imminence of destruction … so the mind has to dig deep in to the self to produce something that not only survives, but is renewed” (pg 46). Indeed, having retired from the NHS, he is now in private practice and amongst other things working with people affected by cancer.

Woods concludes he isn’t sure about being grateful to the cancer for this journey but he wouldn’t have been without it.

References: 

Dunmore, H, (2017). Inside the Wave. Paperback. Bloodaxe Books Ltd.